My Atypical Volunteer Experience
What do people say after a one-time two-week volunteer experience to a country in Africa? Basically people just throw words into the garbage:
"The experience changed me." Usually followed by platitudes about who they are now and why visiting Africa was so necessary.
"I had no idea what things were like there before going." Which seems to just point out how well off the speaker is compared to the people they saw.
"I recommend everyone go to Africa at least once to experience the culture." Makes Africa seem like a magical place or amazing theme park and going there solves things. Not to mention that Africa is not a country, but many different countries.
"The people were so nice." Please stop saying this, it doesn't mean anything, nice people exist everywhere.
"Here's what Africa is like." Without any description of context, just general, outlandish remarks about what a whole continent is like.
Let's be very specific, and non-magical, and think about what is worth saying about a volunteer experience in the village of around five thousand called Humjibre where I volunteered in Ghana:
1. It's worth recalling how much people have the same needs and wants wherever you go: (a) how can I give a better life to my kids? (b) who will take care of me when I get older? (c) how do I make ends meet for the coming week?
2. It's worth pointing out that women do the majority of the work. During a home interview by GHEI staff I was allowed to attend (GHEI wisely limits how often foreigners attend interviews as our attendance may skew the results), the man of the household sat in a chair while the woman washed corn, looked after the young children, and likely breast-fed, did the laundry, and cleaned after we had left. At the same time I remember hearing that some women also do the farming for the family.
3. It's worth saying how a lot of women become pregnant at a young age, and aren't able to continue their academic studies. This often means that motherhood is their only choice of occupation. It is not easy to be a woman in Humjibre.
4. It's worth saying how much the residents of small-town Humjibre are like residents of small Midwestern towns. Kids in small towns make their own fun: in my Iowa town there's a parking garage that is free if you park for less than 5 minutes, so we would drive to the top of the garage and have a dance party as long as possible and then race down to the exit before the 5 minutes expired. In Humjibre, kids have designed a game: that involves throwing a rock into the air and collecting as many additional rocks on the ground as possible before having to catch the original rock.
5. And the differences: (a) people don't expect you to speak the local language but are astoundingly gracious when you try (usually in my case terribly), I think in the small-town USA if you don't speak the language well you get talked at loudly, as if the local resident can give you an English lesson at the same time. (b) If you're black in a mostly-white small-town USA, this can be dangerous for terrible and very clear reasons. Being white in mostly-black small-town Humjibre was rather pleasant. (c) Wave and smile at someone you've never met in Humjibre? 19 times out of 20 you'll get a large smile and wave back.
Let's take a closer look at points 1, 2, and 3 above. From what I can tell, it's pretty hard for Humjibre residents to have their basic needs met, particularly when it comes to health and education. For health, I heard that it was pretty likely for children to contract malaria and diarrheal disease multiple times. For education, once done with elementary/junior high school, we were told most kids stop schooling. In large part this is due to money: high school costs a lost, 900 US dollars for the 3 years. Further, you have to pay it all upfront. To give you a sense of this cost, during breakfast a lady outside of where we lived sold donut-like items called 'bowfrut' for 1/2 of a Ghanian cedi (the Ghanian equivalent of a dollar). 4 cedi makes 1 US dollar. Let's that she sells bowfrut everyday (which is generous) and puts this money towards putting her child to school. This means that she would have to sell 20 bowfrut a day for one year without fail to make enough to send her child to high school. Of course, she can't sell for the whole day because she also farms, and the money from farming just covers her other expenses, and so can't be used towards her child's high school fund. The town has 5000 people and many other people sell bowfrut and other breakfast items. Further, everyone else in the town is like her and is really trying to save money to send their kids to school, and so isn't exactly having a bowfrut party. I hope this is making it clear how nearly impossible it is for most people to send their child (or their multiple children) to high school.
Luckily, Humjibre has a great organization called the Ghana Health and Education Initiative (GHEI) on whose blog I am posting this message! GHEI has implemented a scholarship program to fund students to go to high school. For health it has helped cause the following changes: (a) in 2014 85% of households own mosquito bednets in GHEI villages, compared to 49% across Ghana; (b) since 2010, diarrhea in children has decreased by 30% due to access to soap and clean water for hand washing. To address point 2 above, GHEI has focused on girls’ education and between 2001 and 2013, pass rates for the high school entrance exam BECE have increased for girls from 4% to 99%. To address point 3 above, GHEI partners with local businesses to sell condoms at a dramatically subsidized cost, allowing for more effective family planning strategies.
As you probably are now aware, I'm a big fan of GHEI (granted you may have been aware before as I am writing a blog post for them). They don't mess around. They don't have a lot of money, but they put it towards things that do work; like a skinny boxer who selects his punches carefully, aiming them at calculated weaknesses of his opponent. The boxer isn't going to lay the knockout haymaker punch in the first round. Instead, he's going to kidney punch the heck out of the other boxer (this boxer represents poverty) a few strong times.
Thank you GHEI for your excellent poverty boxing. It was a pleasure to volunteer for you. I have no doubt you will do great things in the future. If you'd like to know more about GHEI you can visit: www.ghei.org